Science says: older brains just love to learn 12



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If you feel you can’t keep up with younger people when it comes to learning new tricks, it’s probably all in your hear. Scientists have discovered that we old(er) dogs can indeed keep up – and even excel at learning.

In fact, older people may be able to learn more from visual information than their younger counterparts, according to the study published in the journal Current Biology.

“The take-home message the study authors gave was that healthy older people are good at learning,” said Professor Henry Brodaty, co-Director of the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at UNSW. “They have the same plasticity, but they’re not as good at filtering out other information.”

The brain needs to be able to easily learn new information (plasticity), and filter out irrelevant information (stability). The experiment was designed to test whether ageing affects the brain’s plasticity, stability, or both.

The researchers had ten 67 to 79-year-olds and ten 19 to 30-year-olds view screens displaying six letters interspersed with two numbers. Each screen also had moving dots in the background, and the participants were asked to report just the numbers.

They found younger people had strong plasticity and stability, meaning only important information – the numbers – was learnt. The older participants, on the other hand, learnt the numbers but also picked up on the movement of the background dots.

This decrease in stability among the older group means irrelevant information was not being filtered out.

One of the study authors, Professor Takeo Watanabe told Current Biology that because the brain’s capacity to learn was limited, there was “always the risk that information already stored in the brain may be replaced with new and less-important information.”

However, Professor Brodaty said the verdict on how the brain stores information was still out.

“There’s debate whether you’ve got a limited filing cabinet, and if you get too much in there you’ve got no room for anything else,” he said. “Many neuropsychologists don’t think there’s a limit, or if there is, we’re nowhere near reaching it.”

Professor Anthony Hannan from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, said the paper did not discuss the implications of the generational difference in the two age groups.

“One of the most obvious differences between these two groups other than their age is that the younger group would have grown up with screens: playing video games, watching television, using the internet – essentially having perceptual training through their digital environment,” he said.

Whether the older brains naturally decreased in stability, or if filtering visual information was a skill that had not been honed by the study participants is unclear.

“As there were only ten subjects per group, they may not have been entirely representative of their age groups, due to variable genetic and environmental factors,” Professor Hannan added. “There is evidence, for instance, that people who stay more mentally stimulated and physically active can delay onset of cognitive decline.”

Either way, it seems that older people’s ability to learn important visual information is comparable to their younger, screen-savvy counterparts.

Do you think you’ve got a “limited filing cabinet” or an abundance of space in your head for new information? 

This article first appeared in The Conversation. Read the original here.

Starts at 60 Writers

The Starts at 60 writers team seek out interesting topics and write them especially for you.

  1. Taking up writing as a new career at the age of 57 after having my court reporting career outsourced to a private firm and then being published.

  2. In later years I always told my students that the reason I take longer to reply us that there is so much in my brain it has to filter through….. The little ones stared in amazement.., think the older ones were more sceptical.!!!!!!

  3. Using a thermomix. After 8 months of use it’s just another kitchen appliance. A fantastic piece of machinery. I cook for 4 or more every day.

  4. If you stop learning you might as well spend your days six feet under. Learning is the greates thing in older peoples lives.

  5. As an adult educator I often spoke to students about learning “womb to tomb”. I believe the brain has an unlimited capacity to learn and I continue learning every day.

  6. I don’t think the brain has a limiter capacity to learn, but I do find that as I am getting older I am focusing on more detail and it annoys me. I only become aware of it when I am relating something to another person, and I am concerned I will become boring because of it. My children are becoming impatient with me ! Another thing I am noticing, instead of being able to do 100 things at once, I can now only do one thing properly at a time, or else I loose concentration. I have 5 children and when they are all wanting me to make decisions about things at the same time I get hassled and find myself saying just that. ( ” I can only do one thing at a time !!”)

  7. Join your local U3A (University of the Third Age ) hundreds of classes, taught by people who love teaching and the students all want to learn.
    This is the most satisfying form of teaching I have ever known and many of my students find it the most satisfying learning environment.

  8. Sorry, but is “all in our hear” meant to be “all in our head”. Might be well over 60, but can still proofread lol

  9. I’m 88 1/2 and learning how to adapt hints and tricks on newer version Photoshop to older version and doing fine.

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